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Director: Rodrigo García
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Those are the words hotel waiter Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) uses to lie to his employer, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), about the condition of his mattress so he won’t have to share it with a temporary worker and risk revealing his secret—that Nobbs is actually a woman. Those are also the words that I would use to describe Albert Nobbs: there are a lot of great things about this film, but viewers can expect to roll over a few lumps while watching it.
Albert Nobbs, a passion project for Glenn Close, who did a stage version of the story in 1982 and not only stars in the film but also coproduced and cowrote it, is based on a short story by the great Irish writer George Moore. These days, Moore is not as famous a member of the Irish Literary Revival movement of the latter 19th and early 20th century as Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, but he was a highly influential and controversial one. He brought English literature into the modern age by offering realism and sex, including homosexuality, in place of romanticism. “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” published in 1927, displays all of these elements in spades, offering an exploration of gender and social class roles and the more Irish-centered concerns of delayed adulthood and idealized motherhood.
Albert is a very buttoned-up, 40ish person, careful and economical in both word and deed. He remembers little touches, like putting roses on the dinner table of a particular hotel guest, and these actions garner him the steady tips he records carefully in a ledger and squirrels under a floorboard in his room. His hope is to leave the employ of others and open his own shop. He has even located the property he wants to buy in a rundown part of Dublin.
Albert’s modest plan gets a major kickstart when he discovers the temporary worker he failed to avoid sleeping with shares Albert’s secret: Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) is also a woman. The pair exchanges stories. Page left an abusive husband who gave her a broken nose as a permanent scar, donned his clothes, and made a good living as a house painter, work that would not have been available to a woman. Page moved in with Kathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), a milliner, to share living expenses, and when the neighbors started to talk, they got married. Albert believes he is the unacknowledged bastard of a gentleman and well-born mother who died when Albert was an infant. She was cared for by a Mrs. Nobbs, who gave her her treasured picture of her mother, but nothing more in the way of information. Mrs. Nobbs died when Albert was 14, and she was gang-raped by some young men. Determined to get out of the miserable conditions in which she lived, she bought a second-hand suit and was hired on as a waiter at a short-staffed restaurant. And that was it—Albert’s life as a man and a waiter began.
Meeting Hubert sets the repressed Albert’s imagination on fire. When he learns Hubert has a wife, he is desperate to find out how Hubert did it—did he tell Kathleen before or after they were married, innocent of the notion that such a thing as a lesbian could exist. He tracks them down, and they invite him in for tea and conversation. He decides he wants to sell tobacco when they question what his intentions for his shop will be, but Albert has never even rolled a cigarette, much less smoked one. Albert wonders if a woman could sell tobacco; Hubert says yes and suggests that Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty, young maid in the hotel, would be great for the job.
That idea planted like a weed in manure, Albert decides that he will court and marry Helen; he imagines the façade of the shop, “A. Nobbs, Tobacconist” hovering over the entryway, and a door leading to a sitting room where Helen sits knitting before a hearth fire. However, Helen is carrying on a sexual affair with Joe (Aaron Johnson), another employee whose only wish is to go to America and leave behind his troubled past. It’s hard to know how a middle-aged, chaste, peculiar cross-dresser will win Helen, but therein lies some of the intrigue of Albert Nobbs.
Glenn Close inhabits Albert like the closely tailored suit and bowler he wears. Subtle make-up provides her with a dessicated look appropriate to someone whose emotional life has all but dried up. When Albert’s carefully circumscribed life starts to unravel, Close offers jewels of uncontrollable emotional release that are quite touching. For example, in one scene, Albert and Hubert each don dresses Kathleen made and take a walk. The initial comedy of seeing two women acting believably like awkward men in drag gives way to a burst of feeling as Close opens her arms and runs as the wind skims under her skirt and blows her shawl loosely around her, the tight corset concealing Albert’s breasts and close-fitting suit and tie abandoned for a time. In another scene, Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), the sympathetic house doctor, ruminates with Albert at a fancy dress ball for which only the hotel guests are costumed, “We are disguised as ourselves.” But who really is Albert? He barely makes a start at finding out and growing up before fate intervenes.
Still, Albert Nobbs has some problems. First, and less critically, the pacing is uneven. Director Rodrigo García’s background includes both episodic television and episodic films, and Albert Nobbs feels episodic as well. A typhoid epidemic that hits in the middle of the film puts in place one important plot point. One of the hotel’s maids and Albert become infected, and Mrs. Baker’s self-pity at being abandoned by her patrons and closed down is a good capsule of her character. But the incident is so rushed through that the scope of the devastation barely registers. Helen and Joe’s affair has some lyrical moments, such as when Helen goes into a yard hung with drying sheets looking for Joe, but the relationship is a bit clichéd and rather uninteresting. Johnson doesn’t make Joe a very compelling character; though we feel drawn to take his side when he is dismissed from a previous job for daring to knock snow on the feet of some rich guests, he never puts the mix of vulnerable and callous together into a combustible brew.
Wasikowska is better as a young woman who is doomed to scrape after a living in the same way that forced Hubert and Albert into disguise, and she shows a conscience about using Albert, a strange but likable colleague at the hotel. Her confusion about leaving with the sexually entrancing Joe or opting for the security of Albert is real, and her attempt to make Albert into a more palatable mate by trying to teach him to kiss passionately is more sad than humorous.
The failure to find enough humor in Albert Nobbs is the film’s greatest weakness. If any ethnic group exemplifies the twin masks of comedy and tragedy, it is the Irish. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Colombian director really understood the comedy underlying this superficially tragic story. His social critique of male/female and upper/lower class relations is almost nonexistent, relying on exposition (e.g., Hubert and Albert telling their stories) rather than any blackly comic exchanges to make the point. Albert’s sexual naivete could have had more humorous consequences than Close flailing on a park bench when Wasikowska kisses her. Could there not have been some curiosity or naïve questioning of Hubert and Kathleen? After all, Albert is emotionally and experientially stuck in prepubescence, and such questioning would be funny, poignant, and appropriate.
The very end of the film, when Hubert sees a photo in Albert’s room and turns it over to find the word “Mother” written on the back, was very funny for me, but I honestly don’t think that was the intention. The film seemed determined to make Albert a tragic and pitiable figure who was robbed of an authentic life, and possibly wished to make points as a gay-friendly film as well. The truth is that Albert is a bit dim and fell into a masquerade that pokes great fun at the marriage-shy, mommy-fixated Irish lad of yesteryear. While I recommend this film unreservedly for its fine performances and period detail, it falls just a bit short of what it could have been.
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Director/Screenwriter: Tom Collins
2008 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ah, fawk, I really wanted to give Kings, the first film performed largely in Irish, a big thumbs up, really. It’s a good thing when a language that has teetered on the edge of extinction, as Irish Gaelic has, gains exposure to an international audience and a large segment of its would-be indigenous speakers through a popular cultural form. Language can legitimate a culture as few other expressions can. Faraor (alas), Kings will only appeal to Irish speakers, and perhaps only to those who lived the émigré experience of 20 to 40 years ago. Indeed, at the screening I attended last night, I was surrounded by Irish-born, Irish-fluent seniors, mainly men, who identified strongly with the story. “That’s just how it was,” said the nice Irish gentleman on my left, who assured me that the subtitles were dead on. That’s something, I suppose.
The story and look of Kings tracks rather closely with John Cassavetes’ searing look at men in pain, Husbands. Five Irish men who emigrated to England in the 1980s to seek fame and fortune—and presumably to return to Ireland as kings—gather together to mourn the passing of a sixth of their number, Jackie (Seán Ó Tarpaigh), who died under the wheels of a train in London’s Underground. Two of the men, Git (Brendan Conroy) and Jap (Donal O’Kelly), still live together in the apartment all six shared when they first arrived from Connamara. Both men are alcoholics and unemployed. Máirtín (Barry Barnes) is in a marriage strained to the breaking point by his drinking. Shay (Donncha Crowley) is middle class and responsible; he picks up Jackie’s father (Peadar O’Treasaigh) at the airport and arranges the funeral and transport of Jackie’s body back to Ireland for burial. Joe (Colm Meaney) is the rich success of the group. He’s addicted to cocaine, “the rich man’s alcohol,” as Git calls it. Our dead man was rejected by Joe, whom he looked up to like a big brother, because he was an unreliable drunk.
After the funeral, which Joe skips out of guilt and only the four other friends, Jackie’s father, and a few nuns attend, the lads meet in a pub called Connamara, keep bellowing “all for one and one for all” at each other, drink, and wax sentimental all night about Jackie. Harsh truths that can come as a surprise to no one in the audience come out one by one as alcohol loosens inhibitions while seeming to have no other effect on these professional drinkers. Everyone leaves. The end of yet another bender. Nothing changes.
So what have we just seen? An Irish film that takes place entirely in London, with the exception of some brief flashbacks that look like they could have been shot almost anywhere. Five out of six Irishmen in a single group of friends who are addicts of one sort or another. Immigrants of such long standing that most of them don’t consider Ireland home anymore but still imagine they’ll go back one day. Sentimentality laid on with a cement trowel. In other words—every stereotype of the Irish you can imagine.
None of the actors give life to their sketchy characters. The writer doesn’t provide them with any kind of substance, only speechified resentments and melodramatic crosses to bear. The ensemble is even forced to sing “Danny Boy” to a jukebox accompaniment, though they are careful to ridicule it afterwards. Instead of Jackie, they should have thrown the script (based on what I’m sure was an equally tedious play) under a train and started over.
Yet, my fellow moviegoer said, “that’s just how it was.” Perhaps it was indeed. Life comes with regrets, and it may have done men of his generation a service to air them in a language they hold dear. Perhaps it’s even appropriate to an Irish-language film to be about this generation, as the youth of the Celtic Tiger generation understandably have no attachment to the tatters of the past.
A commenter on IMDb said this about Husbands: “A beautifully observed and outrageously unsentimental study of sentiment, Husbands explores the desires, loves and losses of a generation constantly running away from their lives through three men who actually do it.” The generation Kings captures deserved at least as much. l
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Director: John Carney
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When the hubby and I came out after seeing Once, he insisted we go to the ticket taker and surrender the half of the ticket the theatre needed; we had taken in a double feature (Away from Her, more on that in the next review) and theatre-hopped at the multiplex. The ticket taker offered to dispose of the entire ticket, but we said we like to keep the stubs. “Movie geeks, huh?” “Yes. She’s a film critic,” the hubby offered. “What did you think of it?” the young man asked. “Loved it!” “You going to review it? I guess it doesn’t need another good review. It’s got lots of those,” he offered.
Well, I’m sorry to say, this film needs all the great reviews it can get. Here it was, opening weekend for the film, Saturday of a holiday weekend, and the movie was not sold out, not even close. WAKE UP, PEOPLE! Change your plans, get off your couches, go see Once. Then buy the DVD.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so thoroughly touched, entertained, and surprised by a film, and at the same time enjoyed a theatre filled with wonderfully memorable music from the opening to the closing credits. As has been said by other reviewers of this film, this is a musical for people who don’t like musicals. It is a musical that takes the creating and performing of songs out of the realm of fantasy and makes it a real endeavor by real people who love what they are doing. That is the central love affair of this film, made completely believable by pairing The Frames’ lead singer/guitarist Glen Hansard with classically trained Czech pianist Markéta Irglová and putting it all under the direction of former Frames member John Carney.
Our two main characters are a young man (Hansard) and woman (Irglová), both unnamed, who live in Dublin, Ireland. The opening scene shows the man playing a beat-up guitar on the street for change. He catches a young punk (Darren Healy) out of the corner of his eye standing near the alley. He’s sure the punk means to rip him off. This scene plays out in such a humorous and realistic way that the film grabs you instantaneously. You say to yourself, “I recognize these people.” At the end of the scene, the man says to the punk that he didn’t have to steal the money; if he’d asked, the man would have given it to him. In a less honest film, this conversation would have made the punk regretful and behave better. In this film, the punk asks him for the money and, backed into a corner, the man gives it to him.
The young man meets the young woman one night when he’s out playing to a mainly empty street. She stops, listens, and tells him how much she likes the song he just sang. “Did you write it?” “Yes,” is his answer. “I see you every day on the street, and you never sing songs like this.” People don’t pay for original material, he says, and then complains that she only gave him ten cents for it. “People pay for songs they know.” She asks him if he has a regular job. Yes, he fixes Hoovers—vacuum cleaners—at his father’s shop. Great, she cries. “I have a broken vacuum. If I bring it tomorrow, will you fix it?” Yes, he says, and they say good night.
In the morning, the woman shows up at his spot on the street with her vacuum cleaner. Begging off repairs for lack of tools, the man agrees to accompany the financially struggling woman to a music store where she is allowed to play their pianos. So, vacuum cleaner in tow like a small, blue dog, they’re about to start their adventure. She plays a fragment for the man. He humorously asks if she wrote it. She laughs. “No, Mendelssohn.” Almost apologetically, he offers, “It’s good.” With slightly sarcastic good humor, she says, “Oh yes, it’s good.” She asks him to play with her. Reluctant at first, he pulls out his notebook of lyrics, gives her musical cues for the song, and they feel their way through the magnificent “Falling Slowly.” The title signals the ties that are being forged between the pair.
After a rocky start, prompted by the man’s invitation to the woman to spend the night with him, the relationship progresses. The woman invites the man to her home in a rundown section of Dublin. He is greeted by a little girl and an older woman—the woman’s daughter and mother (Danuse Kretstova). He’s plunged into a world of another language and bare-bones living that an Irish lad like himself might have endured 20 years ago but that is now foreign territory in an Ireland with a robust economy. He stays for dinner, hears a polite “No, thank you” from the mother to her daughter’s plea that she try to speak English, and watches as three Czech men walk in the unlocked front door to watch the only TV set in the building.
The dramatic elements complement the musical scenes in which the growth of the collaboration between the man and the woman is beautifully realized. For example, the man gives the woman a CD of his songs, including one for which he can’t seem to write lyrics, and asks her to write them. She listens on a portable CD player he gives her that quickly runs out of juice. Breaking into her toddler’s piggy bank with a promise (“I’ll pay you back.”), she goes to the nearest store, reloads with fresh batteries, and writes the lyrics in her head as she walks back home as we are treated to the lovely musical interlude, “If You Want Me.” This is such a brilliantly orchestrated scene, true to real life, true to the creative process, and cinematically coherent.
A conventional musical would have the man and woman fall in love by the final frame. This film doesn’t exactly break that convention, but it puts it in its proper place. The man is still in love with a woman he broke up with when he caught her cheating on him. The woman is married—a marriage resulting from her pregnancy—but her husband is back in the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, the perfect harmony of the creative partnership the pair have forged leads to a kind of love affair, one in which they share their lives, private thoughts, and well of their creativity. One scene in which the woman plays a song she wrote for her husband is a genuinely gut-wrenching experience that left me breathless. The pair helps each other break through the blocks that have put their lives in a holding pattern and gives them a chance to pursue what is really important to them.
Most of the songs in the film were written by Irglová and Hansard, who collaborated previously on Hansard’s solo album “The Swell Season,” from which some of the songs on the soundtrack are taken. Many people consider The Frames—not U2—the great Irish band. I don’t know much about music, but I do know that I love these songs in a way I have never loved the music of U2. The fact that they are paired with a wonderfully realized film by a relative rookie director who clearly always loved movies (one of The Frames’ albums in named “Fitzcarraldo,” after the demented masterpiece about opera by Werner Herzog) makes for a perfect experience.
This film would be a fine double-feature with the wonderful Alan Parker film The Commitments, in which Hansard also plays a street musician. Both give rich views of life in Dublin, with Once updating the scene to include immigrants to Ireland. There is so much to recommend this celebration of music and community that you’ll want to watch Once again and again. l